Blair's Golden Road Blog - The Persistence of Memory
By Blair Jackson
I’ve been asked many times through the years about “the best” Grateful Dead show I ever attended. With 365 concerts spanning 1970 to 1995 to choose from, that’s an extremely difficult choice. “Best” in what way? Some supposedly objective evaluation of the music? Good luck with that. “Favorite”? Even that is completely loaded. I’ve had unimaginable fun at shows that I know were not that spectacular, and I’ve had so-so times at shows that were revealed later to be magnificent. It’s the setting, your mood, who you’re with, who’s around you, your ability at that show and on those songs to tune in to the band and the vibe in the venue, and so on.
As I’ve said before, I don’t like to compare shows from different periods of the band’s history. Let’s pick two shows I attended that I loved unequivocally: 5/15/70 late show at the Fillmore East and 10/10/82 at Frost Amphitheatre in Palo Alto. It doesn’t even feel like the same band to me. I was a 17-year-old newbie in the spring of ’70 and every show was a complete revelation. That first year-plus I saw the band, half the songs at a given concert were new to me. Give me a “Dark Star” or a “St. Stephen” and I was blissful.
By the fall of ’82 I was 29 and a wily veteran, yet there was something so perfect about that second Frost show—particularly the pre-drums—on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, in what was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen the Dead, that has seared the show in my mind in a way few have. Certainly there have been many others that are as memorable to me in other ways, from the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago in ’71, to the final night of the Warfield run in ’80, to the 9/11/83 show at the Santa Fe Downs, to Sunday Red Rocks in ’85, and on and on. We all have a million stories.
But there is one show I went to that probably persists into my memory more than any other: March 18, 1977, at Winterland. I had last seen the Dead in October 1976, two shows (with The Who) at Oakland Stadium, so it was a relief to be back “home” in a smaller place again. I’d been hanging out a bit with my new Dead Head friend David Gans and he had passed along glowing reports of the Dead’s first two shows of ’77 down in Southern California. He told me about a new epic tune Garcia had introduced, called “Terrapin” (“Huh, like a turtle?”) and a new reggae tune by Bob Weir. Intriguing.
My girlfriend and I met up in line with my roommate from sophomore year at Northwestern, also named Blair, and we landed choice seats in the top (seventh) row of the little balcony that outlined the floor, about a third of the way back. The first set was typical for the era, which is to say completely inspired. Jerry’s solos in “Mississippi Half-Step” soared and screamed—there was something that happened to the sound of his guitar (a Travis Bean at the time) in that smallish arena that was different from any other place. The room’s natural reverb, which played havoc with Phil’s bass lines, let Jerry’s sound ring into every inch of space, it seemed. “Sugaree” was never better than it was in ’77, and on the version this night, something cool happened right before the final verse, at about the 9:55 mark. Jerry stepped on a pedal—an octave divider, I learned years later—that changed his sound to a warm but sharp tone I’d never heard him use before. It felt like being bathed in hot liquid. It lasted only a minute or so before he switched back to his regular tone, but for me it had the shock of the new—whoa, what was that?—and it was just a hint of things to come. The real guitar fireworks started a couple of songs later.
“Scarlet Begonias,” probably my favorite of the band’s recent songs (it was two years old at that point) had everyone in the place happily dancing and singing along, but the instrumental coda, which opened with Donna’s soft moans and cries as usual, didn’t expand and spread out this time; instead, it moved quite deliberately into a catchy new groove that sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite. (It was from “Happiness Is Drumming” off the Diga Rhythm Band album, which I’d worn out on my turntable over the previous year.)
It turned out this was a new song, debuted that night, “Fire on the Mountain,” and it introduced another novel guitar tone—courtesy of Jerry’s envelope filter, which gave every note a wonderful thwacking wah. What a song! It had the fattest groove of any Dead song since “St. Stephen,” and that chorus, with Bob and Donna helping out, jumped in my head and has stayed there for the past 35 years. And when the final jam after the last chorus made a quick descent and dropped back into the original opening riff of “Scarlet,” my head snapped back in amazement—whaaaaa?—as if some master magician had just made a tiger disappear in front of my eyes. How did they do that?
A few songs into Set Two, Jerry was back with the magical envelope wah for my first version of “Estimated Prophet” (which I called “California” before David Gans educated me about the correct title a few days later). I was a huge fan of reggae in this era—The Harder They Come soundtrack, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Toots & the Maytals—so I was thrilled that Bob and the band had put a characteristically weird and dark spin on the genre.
Then came “Terrapin,” rising quietly at first, glistening rhythm guitar accents from Bob, as Jerry began the tale. That first time through I couldn’t quite piece together details of the story—the girl, the sailor, the soldier, the lion’s den. But it felt timeless, maybe even from another dimension, an invitation to go on a mysterious journey. The notes in Jerry’s first solo were like molten gold. The song moved through different sections, its rhythm changing a couple of times along the way, until it arrived at a point where all of us—5,000-strong—were shouting “TERRAPIN!” along with Bob and Donna, because we knew we had to, and the band kicked into this enormous instrumental bombardment of guitars and piano and drums rising and falling in unison and harmony and contrapuntal lines; the most magnificent and majestic bombast I’d ever heard.
Once that jam had dwindled to its natural conclusion, the group went into a hypnotic jam that sounded Spanish or Arabic—this was the only time the Dead ever played the “At a Siding” section of the “Terrapin Station” suite (the album came out in late July ’77), but without Garcia’s vocal part (“While you were gone…”) attached. (I had to wait for Furthur to play the complete suite decades later to hear that great swooping entrance to “At a Siding” live again; it still gave me chills.)
Following a short drum solo, it was back to terra firma for a long, slow but simmering version of “Not Fade Away,” which, incredibly enough, contained the most mind-blowing musical passage of a night filled with them. At 11:00 into the song, Jerry flips on what sounds like a combination of an octave divider and a flanger and launches into this rotating figure against the beat that builds slowly and then gets faster and wilder until it’s spinning completely out of control and he’s “fanning” high and fast. It hits a peak and just stays there for a few bars and then he really cuts loose on the chaotic descent. I’ve heard it hundreds of times since and it never fails to leave me breathless; it’s still astonishing.
At the time I was so stunned by that short jam I think I was still recovering during the “St. Stephen” that followed and didn’t even notice they skipped a verse and the middle jam of that song! “Uncle John’s Band” was the encore that sent us home. Sweet ecstasy! It was one of those totally transcendent and transformative nights the Grateful Dead occasionally provided (when I least expected it) that made me feel completely alive and alert and in tune with everything in the universe. (It sounds goofy, but you know what I mean.)
Within a week or two, Gans had tracked down an excellent audience recording of the show and I played it endlessly, reliving the night each time. As time went on and more tapes and more shows competed for my attention, I listened to the show less, but the glow never left me.
In preparation for writing this, I listened to good ol’ 3/18/77 from beginning to end for the first time in a few years and I was frankly surprised by its flaws—the lyric lapses in “Uncle John’s” and “Fire on the Mountain” (which is still raw and formative), the sloppiness of what I remembered being a perfect transition going from “Fire” back to the “Scarlet” intro, that missing chunk of “St. Stephen,” etc. By the time the band hit the road the following month for the fabled May ’77 tour, they’d worked out the kinks in “Fire” and tightened up their sound in general. But everything that excited me that night is still etched in my imperfect memory and washes over me again whenever I hear the show.
I went to Winterland the following night, too, and though I’m sure I had a good time, here’s what I actually remember of the 3/19 show: nothing. And you know what? All in all, it’s probably even a better show (the tapes told me years after the fact). But 3/18 was my show, and it always will be.
Is there a show that stands out in your mind as The One?
Yep -- Saratoga Performing Arts Center -- June, 1983. My first venture out of "hometown" arena shows -- beautiful, beautiful venue w/in a state park in upstate NY -- many of you know it -- my favorite east coast venue by a long shot Great big Pine trees, gardens, brick "garden/gallery buildings, streams. First the fellas played there -- I was a "newbie" discovery the wonders of being on the "bus" at the ripe age of 16 -- first set in the sun (show was I believe 6/23 -- right around the solstice); second set under the stars w/ the exception of the passing sprinkling shower complete w/ thunder & lightening during space>Wheel (how freakin synchronistic was that!) -- second set pre-drums spacier than spacey can get (Scarlet>Fire Playin'> spacey jam for seemingly 1/2 hour-45 minutes qent way the f*ck OUT there) > D/S > Wheel > Playin' Reprise > (MONSTER) Dew (Jerry screaming the lyrics) > Throwing Stones > NFA > Touch of Grey // (Double encore): Don't Ease>Sat Nite (or was it Baby Blue?) -- all from memory (29 years ago, no-less! -- not bad).
Listen back on the music/musicianship -- shabby here and there, soaring in other places -- Throwing Stones, Touch of grey, Hell a Bucket all relatively new tunes -- but the more important part -- the energy was palpable -- the place, the vibe, the time of year, the thunder & lightening during Space>Wheel -- the DEW (my first).
Never gonna forget it -- goin to m' grave w/a smile because of this show (and many others, past and future). Yep, I'd like to take that ride justa one mo' time . . .
is sure on my short list too. When I had James Olness make me a tape, which is still around here somewhere, I had him start it with the Banks of the Ohio from the Joan set, since by then she had pretty much worn out her welcome with a lot of the other material alas, but that one song was stellar.
My all-time fave, however, is one that generally gets no love whatever, 5-21-82 at the Greek. A short Friday night show whose main claim to fame was arguably the reappearance of UJB, and I freely admit I always preferred the dynamic of the Friday night shows, but there is something about this one. Jerry is just in great form. Or at least in the form I like.
Not that I am complaining about, say, 9/11/81 at the Greek, which was pretty epic, but completely different. It was my second show and my perspective was pretty different, though it certainly stands the test of time.
... just so you're not feelin' too alone, that 12/31/81 show you mentioned is one of my all-time faves that i attended, too. And definitely the best New Year's show I ever saw... The "Terrapin," the "Dew", the "Dark Star" > "Bertha," Kesey hanging on the high wire (we were right under him!)... Even Joan Baez doing the chicken dance during "Baby Blue".... just a glorious night!
3/19/77 - I have never left a show more exhausted in mife - They did Terrapin at the end of the firsts et(!) and then just torched the second set - never have I heard so many ppower chords! and then Bobby's "Thank you for that kind applause - and here's something in honor of the occasion" Saturday Night - OMG!
Also 10/18/74, the (almost) last Saturday night at Winterland - melted, melted, melted
The one show that edges out others that I saw from 7-8-70 (amazed & dazzled but a kid who wasn't on the Bus yet) on was not a Dead show, but the Legion Of Mary @ Kiel Opera House in St. Louis in December of 1974 with Merle & Martin Fierro. All of the elements David mentioned, the venue, the crowd energy & my friends all around, my peculiar state of mind; all combined to make this a real trip to the stars for me. It was magnificent from start to finish, opening new spaces that I'd never been before. Too great to truly describe; as the saying goes, If you were there no explanation is necessary, if you weren't, none is possible. The Fox Theatre shows in October 1972, especially that Thursday, the last night of the run, were also played by the band beyond description with all elements being perfect. And of course, the Alpine 1989 shows, particularly 7-19, stand tall in my experience of latter day Dead. And a last, glowing memory was taking my 9 & 11 year old daughters on a road trip to Pine Knob in June of 1991. Thanks for the space to trot out some wonderful experiences...
Memory is funny stuff. I've heard it said that when we remember something, we do not recall the thing itself, but rather, we recollect our last memory of the thing. That said, I don't recall much of my first GD show at the Uptown Theater in Chicago on 11-16-78. I had just turned 18 years old and didn't know much about the band, but had been invited to attend the show with a couple of people that I knew from my job at the time, so I decided to check it out. I bought my ticket at Ticketron the day of the show, a seat in the last row of the balcony, and that's pretty much where I spent the entire night. I only recognized a couple of the tunes they played that night; they opened with Minglewood, which I knew from the What a Long Strange Trip It's Been compilation album, and then opened the second set with Dancing In The Street, which little resembled the original, but it was Truckin', which they closed the second set with, that made the greatest impression on me. Of course, I knew this tune from the radio, but what the boys did to it that night in Chicago is something I still can't quite explain. As far as I can tell, there's only one audience tape of this show in circulation, but it's not a great recording, and the crowd that night was really rowdy. At about 6:10 into the one recording I've found, right after the last verse, and following the big build-up and release, Garcia spends the next 4 minutes or so slashing at his guitar ala Pete Townshend. After that night, I came to see quite a few shows over the next 17 years, but I don't think I ever again heard playing as off-the-hook as the jam out of Truckin' they played that night in Chicago. I'll add that I was pretty much sober that night, but still, memory's a funny thing, so it's good to have evidence to back up these claims of witnessed brilliance:
it's actually not that hard of a choice: RCMH 10/31/80. There was only one night of this run (the second night) that I didn't head over to the venue since I was living in NYC at the time, and managed to score tickets on the street to several of them. That last night really was the capper, though. Fourth row, first balcony dead center. Waiting in line to go in, an intrepid soul came walking along the line with a Murine bottle offering drops for a dollar and drawing many takers, me included. By the time I actually got in that carpeting in the lobby was already much more interesting that usual, and so many people in the wildest costumes. My personal favorite was the Your Own Personal Jerry Garcia Windup Doll guy, complete with a giant key coming out of his back and an actual Stratocaster hanging off him. Not to mention a dead-ringer look-alike. Thing were only going to get better from there!
The comedy bits with Franken and Davis were hysterical (did they ever find the rest of the blue barrels?) especially the uniformity of opinion that Phil is The Nicest Guy In The Band, and the touching introduction New Guy Brent (who was still in his Greg Allman Lookalike phase) gave to "Frank and Dave." The acoustic set was a real treat despite the minor tech issue Phil had, and features one of my favorite Bird Songs.
During the set break a charming woman two rows in front of me turned around and loudly proclaimed, "Free Acid!" and she and a couple of her friends started handing out blotters to every outstretched hand of which there were many. Time to double down, although I was already in a pretty good space!
The rest of the show had sort of a quirky set list (MAMU>Mexicali second set, standalone Franklin's and Fire third set) but my strongest memory is totally peaking during what I remember as a transcendent Stella. That exact moment is definitely my show-attending zenith. It was never better, and would never again be as good as that 9-10 minutes. At least for me. But that was the question here, wasn't it?
I'm just happy that this show is available on video and so many have also had the chance to relive it. What is kind of odd is that this was the last show I attended for many, many years. It wasn't a conscious decision, it was just the way it worked out. My life was transitioning at the time, and I ended up on a different path to other places for a while. Perhaps subconsciously I slipped into the "leave on a high note" bucket. I'm sure the assassination of John Lennon five weeks later didn't help. Don't ask me how the two things might be connected, because I honestly can't say, but there it is. It's a possible correlation that really only occurred to me just now.
A close second favorite GD experience would be my first show, 5/28/77, although 5/11/78 (the "Mescaline" show) is right up there as well, with that scary-good, deeply funky Dancin' jam, among other highlights.
As for post-GD, again a no-brainer: Gelston Castle, Mohawk, NY 7/3/10. This was a complete surprise Miracle (including round trip transportation!) from my dear friend Dom who I will never be able to fully repay for showing me kindness at a point in my life where good news of any kind was in extremely short supply. We got to the venue good and early and were able to take part in some highly spirited lot jamming with many other very talented musicians. A random fellow reveler who hung out and listened to all of us for a while offered up that he thought I sang Jerry songs better than Bob, a compliment I'm quite certain I don't actually deserve. But man, we all were cranking that day and it was a ton of fun. And then there was still the show!!!
Lots of oldies but goodies there. Cream Puff War, are you kidding me!?!?! Yee-hah!!! John with a sneaky little tease of Donovan's First There Is A Mountain, the premiere of Seven Hills Of Gold, a Dark Star>full boat Terrapin>Stella>UJB as the meat in a Sugar/Sunshine sandwich, the way they used the pastel lights to make the trees around the perimeter look like giant gumdrops, it just never stopped being great. Well, except maybe for the army of gas passers ambushing everyone as they left. You can keep the N2O, thanks, none for me. I usually just hiss back at 'em.
Anyhoo, that's my story and I'm stickin' to it.
This is obviously very subjective since no one else ever mentions this show. From the Flying Karamazovs, NRPS, tolerating Joan Baez, and finally a good first set. Kesey ringing in the new year, and during Not Fade Away Jerry stepped forward and basically took over the night. He led the charge through an incredible Morning Dew and then opened the third set with Dark Star!
I still get a kick out of this show when I hear it, but it must be this great to me only because of my personal experience at that show. As I said, I never hear this one mentioned by anyone when talking about great shows.
Ok, I will surprise those who a familiar with my posts. I attended many shows that have "stood the test of time." But the show for me, for a variety of reasons, is actually a show I saw quite late in my show-going years, the first show at Saratoga in '83. Why? Well first, as others have mentioned, the setting, a beautiful park-like site, with a well designed ampithertre and lots of room to move, picnic, hang, meet new and old friends etc. I recall trying to figure out how to get my taping gear in (Nak 550 with all the trimmings!). Well, I wrapped it in many garbage bags, and placed it at the bottom of a large cooler surrounded by our copious, and gourmet, picnic. The guards were checking cooler's (they actually allowed them in!) for bottles etc. When they asked what was in the plastic I said "a cassarole," and they said, "ok, enjoy!" There was a GREAT athmosphere in the venue, lots of old heads who had given up touring decided to show up to this show because of the venue, and so lots of friendly faced one had not seen for a while, and an "old-school" vibe. The show itself was very stron g for the era, but, in particular, WAY stronger than shows for awhile, which is what I think was the shock. The band was INTO IT. Phil was more active than I had heard for a long time, and his sound, in the hall itself was MASSIVE. It was like one was momentarily transported back to an earlier dead-era, and for a brief hour our so we believed we had. When Jerry hit the opening notes of the Dew, and Phil responsed with a totally earth-shaking chord every atom of my body vibrated and I was transported to that "special Dead place,: that I had not entered at a live show for quite awhile. Was this "the best" show I ever saw, no, is it seared in my memory yup. (Oh, another thing, we were so "high" after the show for a number of reasons (!) that it took us until morning to find our car in one of the many distant, and park-like parking lots.....)